History of the Breakfast

Some food for thought

By John Allison

Political breakfasts and luncheons have been part of the festivities on March 17th for almost as long as the parade.  Like the parade, though, the meaning, setting, time, and guest list have all changed over the years.  Today, we view the Breakfast and other festivities as firm traditions, with strict rules.  In reality, the spirit of the day has always been one of experimentation.  The parade route has changed, its content has changed, the organization responsible for it has changed.  In the same way, the time of the Breakfast has changed.  Its origins are forgotten; it started simply as a breakfast the mayor threw in a hotel downtown before the parade; at one time the Breakfast was actually a luncheon.  The Breakfast is truly one of the day’s traditions that has meant different things at different times. 

The Breakfast originated over a century ago.  The first mention of it seems to be from 1909, when Mayor George Hibbard hosted a Breakfast at the Hotel Bellevue at 11 a.m. on the day of the parade.  Mayor Hibbard is listed as the host, and the South Boston Gazette refers to it as the city’s Breakfast.  Military officers and state and city officials attended. Major General George Davis was present, despite missing the previous evening’s banquet, where he had been scheduled to speak.  He never showed up at the banquet, instead spending the night in his room at the Hotel Touraine.
While the Breakfast may have been a political gathering, the Gazette says that no speeches were made.  It was a very informal affair.  It does not seem to have become an annual tradition, since in 1910 and 1911 there is no mention of a breakfast.  In the 1910’s, some Mayors would host a breakfast and others would not, but it was certainly not an annual event.  When the Breakfast was held, the city appropriated funds for the event, which was a trend that continued for many decades.

The Breakfast continued in this fashion until 1921; in that year the Gazette explicitly states that the city’s appropriations for Evacuation day did not include money for a breakfast, so it would not be held.  We know that the only source of funding for Evacuation Day at this time was the city’s appropriation, and certainly since the Breakfast is always referred to as being given by the city, with the Mayor hosting, the city was the sole sponsor of the Breakfast.  The Boston Post mentions a Breakfast in 1920, so it seems 1921 was the first year for some time without a breakfast.  

1925 brought a Breakfast, and a parade, with some controversy.  The Post Office seized a shipment of shamrocks sent from Ireland and would not allow them in.  Civic groups and politicians successfully fought a brief political battle against the Post Office, and the shamrocks were allowed in.  The Breakfast also caused some controversy.  J. Philip O’Connell, the city’s Director of Public Celebrations, reserved 24 of 90 breakfast invitations for city officials.  The Evacuation Day Committee complained this did not leave them with enough seats, since the remaining 66 invitations had to be split between various groups.

This dispute shows that not only was this a city event, referred to as the “Mayor’s Breakfast for the city’s guest,” but city funds and city employees were deeply involved in the process.  The Breakfast itself is also interesting, because the guest of honor, Alexander T. Rorke, spoke briefly but saved his voice for that evening’s banquet.  Mayor Curley also spoke, and made a “witty speech,” but the hit of the morning came when E. Mark Sullivan sang “The Wearing of the Green.”  These traits identify this Breakfast as a very close ancestor of today’s event.  However, it was still not an annual event.  By  World War II there was no mention of a breakfast.

It is possible that politicians and visiting dignitaries gathered in still less formal settings before the parade.  Indeed, at noon on parade day in 1941 Mayor Tobin and other officials were guests of City Councilor Joseph Scanell.  This was less an event than an open house on a chilly parade day, but it reinforces the informality and fluidity of political gatherings on the 17th.

The next hint of a Breakfast comes in March of 1945.  The Gazette says that Mayor John Kerrigan’s friends were considering holding a reception for him on the morning of the parade.  Nothing came of this, principally because Mayor Kerrigan said he did not want any political demonstrations.  The implication is clearly that he considered a reception on the morning of the parade to be an inherently political event, closely mirroring today’s Breakfast.

The years immediately following World War II were tumultuous ones for the celebration.  The South Boston Citizen’s Association had run almost every aspect of the day since the first parade in 1901, when they had convinced the city to use money formerly earmarked for Farragut Day (June 28)  to hold an Evacuation Day parade.  

The Allied Veterans Council, which was a much larger and younger organization after World War II than ever before, felt they should run the parade.  Their argument had merit, since the parade was almost purely a military parade.  In 1947 the Allied War Veterans began mobilizing to seize the day.  They held corned beef dinners before the parade, one pointedly taking place at the same time as the Citizen’s Association Banquet.  In 1948 both the Allied Veterans Council and the SBCA nominated a chief marshal.  The Mayor traditionally appointed the chief marshal, and Mayor Curley appointed the Veteran’s choice.  He suggested that the Citizen’s Association nominee could be the chief marshal’s adjutant.

Cooperation did not always rule the day when it came to organizing the parade, and indeed when the Breakfast was revived this pattern carried over into the political arena.  In 1949 the Gazette mentions a luncheon held at noon at Dorgan’s Old Harbor for state, city, and county officials.  “Following an established custom of years, many state, city, and county officials will attend a luncheon at noon at Dorgan’s Old Harbor House,” the Gazette says on March 17, 1949.   “This gathering is well worth attending.”

Even though the Gazette refers to it as an established custom, there is no mention of a Breakfast in previous years.  Given that the Gazette tells people the luncheon “is well worth attending” and that the reporter felt it was necessary to note it was an established custom, it seems that this is the revival of the Breakfast last held over a decade earlier.

The following year the Gazette is even clearer about the luncheon.  The front page lists a schedule of events, mentioning the “Mayor’s luncheon” at noon. Again the venue is Dorgan’s, but it is an invitation-only event.  Below the picture of Mayor John B. Hynes on the front page are the words “pays for luncheon.”  Page five has more information on the luncheon, and those in attendance are referred to as guests of Mayor Hynes.  Clearly Hynes hosted the event.  The short article also mentions “customary joshing” and a “brief entertainment program,” which identifies this luncheon beyond all doubt as the predecessor of the modern Breakfast.

March of 1951 saw an important change in the luncheon.  Mayor Hynes and the City Council, along with other guests, had a luncheon at the South Boston Athletic Club.  State officials, with Senator John Powers acting as host, dined at Dorgan’s.  National officials could choose which luncheon to go to, and many guests of both luncheons travelled back and forth between them.

The two luncheons—city and state–seem to have been equally popular and equally significant; and in 1957 especially it seems that the city luncheon was the place to be.  Mayor Hynes hosted it, and the guest of honor was Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe, of Dublin, Ireland.  The State luncheon, hosted by Senator Powers, had Governor Foster Furcolo and other State officials.

Throughout the 1950’s, while Senator Powers hosted the State luncheon, it was always referred to as being given by the South Boston legislators, with Senator Powers as toastmaster.  This seems to be because he was the highest ranking legislator from South Boston, rather than because of the specific office he held at the time.  This was still an era when government funds paid for the Breakfast, once that era ended the tradition became whoever was paying hosted the event.

The city luncheon ended after 1960 because of austerity measures; Mayor John Collins attempted to revive it as a “Dutch treat” affair, but the state luncheon became the only show in town.  In 1962, Senator Powers paid for the luncheon personally for the first time.  The event was not government funded for the first time in its history.    

Senator John Powers hosted his final luncheon in 1964.  He then stepped down from his position as Senate President to serve as Clerk of the Supreme Court of Suffolk County.  With Powers gone, his successor, State Senator Joseph Moakley began hosting the Breakfast.  However, the role of host was not nearly so rigid as some would have us believe.  In 1965, Moakley’s first year of hosting the luncheon, The Boston Globe refers to Representatives William Bulger and James Condon as co-hosts with Moakley.  Given that Bulger was a key part of the Breakfast until he took over hosting duties, one could even say Moakley was co-hosting the event with Bulger.

The 1960’s and early 1970’s were an era of change for the parade as well as the Breakfast.  In 1964, the Boston chapter of the NAACP marched in the parade for the first time.  They marched in subsequent years as well.  The organizers attempted to keep the parade from becoming politicized by the violence in Ireland; some groups left the parade and started their own downtown.  Neither the parade nor the Breakfast remained the same from one year to the next.

In 1972, Moakley was a city councilor, yet the Globe lists him as a host along with Bulger.  This is important to note, not only because it shows the flexibility of the host role, but as a reminder that city officials hosted the original breakfasts.  In 1972, State Representatives Ray Flynn and Michael Flaherty co-sponsored the Breakfast with Bulger; Flynn of course went on to become Mayor.  Flaherty played an active role in future breakfasts; joining Bulger in 1973 to present a mock list of the “Best and Brightest Appointees” to Governor Sargent.

The role of William Bulger as master of ceremonies in many ways made the Breakfast what it is today.  As early as 1965 he played a pivotal role in hosting the Breakfast, and he made it his own for decades.  In 1970 the Globe mentions his entertaining rendition of “When Clancy Lowered the Boom,” and says “Bulger moved the only shillelagh in sight.”  In 1972 the Globe commented that “In recent years the affair at Dorgan’s has teetered on the brink of turning into a stunning virtuoso performance by Bulger…”

This combination of Bulger’s ability to steal the show, along with his long tenure as Senator, created the impression that the way Bulger ran the Breakfast was the way it had always been run.  It was also during Bulger’s tenure as host that the Breakfast was first televised, and the President of the United States began to call during the Breakfast.  These two events solidified the perception of the Breakfast as having rigid rules.  Another effect of television was to change the Breakfast, from an event where politicians could “make the kinds of speeches they would make 364 other days of the year if they weren’t afraid that their constituents would have them lynched,” as the Globe wrote in 1972, into an event where politicians had to be much more careful to avoid alienating anyone.

Bulger hosted the Breakfast until 1996, when he left the Senate.  Stephen Lynch, his successor, hosted the Breakfast in 1997.  The Globe says that “all eyes were on Lynch” because he was hosting the first Breakfast in three decades without Bulger, “a political legend and born showman whose name had become synonymous with the Breakfast.”  Lynch “disarmed skeptics” by acknowledging the change, saying Bulger had, “with his inimitable style and sharp wit,” taken the event to “such a high level-from which it will now fall.”  Everyone agreed Lynch did well hosting the Breakfast.  Mayor Menino expressed the general consensus when he said “the new kid performed really well.”

Lynch continued to host the Breakfast until his election to Congress.  His successor in the Senate, Jack Hart, experienced in 2002 the steep learning curve Lynch had dealt with, but did well with the event.  Hart hosted the Breakfast until 2011.  He retired from politics, and as a result Councilor Linehan of South Boston hosted the Breakfast in 2012.  A City Councilor hosting the Breakfast harkened back to the original breakfasts, which the Mayor hosted for the guests of the city.  It was also in keeping with the tradition of Joe Moakley, who co-hosted the Breakfast while serving as a City Councilor in 1972.

In 2014, the breakfast was hosted by the first woman – Senator Linda Dorcena Forry.  

Now we have a Breakfast, and indeed an entire celebration, that we perceive as having a long history.  This is true, but it is important to remember that history is the story of change.  For much of the parade’s history there was no mention of St. Patrick, but the focus was on Evacuation Day.  The first parade in 1901 was in celebration of the new Monument on Dorchester Heights.  People decorated their homes with American flags.  Over time, Irish and Lithuanian decorations mingled with the American ones.  For many decades, it was a strictly military parade, and indeed after WWI it was called an “Americanization parade.”

As time marches on, everything changes.  The Citizen’s Association Banquet was at one time the main event, and was even broadcast on the radio in 1941.  It goes back further than the parade, and people of national and international importance almost always gave the principal address.  The Historical Exercises used to play to packed houses.  The Breakfast was an informal gathering thrown by the Mayor if he felt so inclined.  It is important to realize that the Breakfast has a tradition of change.  There are no rules governing where, when, how, or by whom it can be arranged.

In terms of tradition, the concept of a state Breakfast is much newer than the city Breakfast.  For decades city officials hosted breakfasts, and as recently as 1972 Joe Moakley co-hosted the Breakfast as a city councilor.  The tradition in some ways is whoever paid for the Breakfast hosted it.  It is an event that was never meant to be taken too seriously, but instead as an enjoyable gathering before marching in the parade.  Indeed, the one thing each host of the Breakfast has in common is none have yet boycotted the parade.

This year Senator Nick Collins will host the breakfast which will be held at the Raymond Flynn Cruise Terminal.  It airs on NECN at 10am.

John Allison is nearly a lifelong resident of South Boston, having moved here as a toddler before beginning his academic career at Tiny Tots.  He then attended St. Brigid School, Boston Latin School, and received a degree in history from Suffolk University; he is grateful for the opportunities the community has afforded him, and also for his parent’s unfailing support.  He is currently the South Boston Neighborhood Coordinator for Mayor Marty Walsh’s Office of Neighborhood Services.

Image: Boston Globe